Holiday Gifts at the Office? Follow These Rules

A few best practices for giving and receiving gifts at work.

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Alison Green
Finding the right gifts for friends and family is hard enough. Being expected to get something for your co-workers and your boss on top of that and navigating how much money to spend is a good way to lose your holiday cheer entirely.

Here are 10 rules for holiday gift-giving at the office. Follow them and you'll keep your workplace merry this year.

1. Be aware that many people would rather not give gifts at work around the holidays. They might have a tight budget that would make even inexpensive gift-buying a strain, or they might not want one more thing to take care of when the holidays are already so busy. Or they might not celebrate the holidays at all and feel uncomfortable being expected to participate.

2. If gifts are given, they should flow downward, not upward. This means that gifts from bosses to employees are fine, but employees should not be expected to give gifts to those above them. Many people resent being expected to give a gift to someone who presumably makes significantly more money than they do. Relatedly…

3. Don't solicit financial donations for a group gift for the boss. Not only does this violate rule No. 2 above, but employees may worry that not participating could affect the way they're perceived by the person who signs their paycheck. That's closer to extortion than a true gift. (Besides, the best gift you can give your boss is being an excellent employee.)

4. If your office organizes a gift exchange, make it opt-in rather than opt-out. Most people feel awkward declining to participate, so asking people to sign up if they're interested is more considerate than making someone announce that they don't want to take part.

5. Office gift exchanges should set a low dollar limit so that people who do want to take part can do so, no matter what their budgets. You might even consider a lower-cost, less traditional event like a sock exchange, where everyone buys one pair of the most garish socks they can find.

6. Stay away from gifts that are too personal for the workplace. Perfume, clothing, jewelry, and Fifty Shades of Grey are all inappropriate gifts for the office. And save the gag gifts for friends and family; the risk of a misunderstood joke giving offense in the office is too high.

7. When in doubt, go with food. If you're looking for a way to participate in holiday celebrations at work without breaking the bank, food items are often low-cost—and more appreciated than most office gifts. Consider leaving a treat in the kitchen for the whole office to share or bringing individually wrapped baked goods.

8. Extravagant gifts are out of place at work. If you've ever been to an office gift exchange where everyone brought gifts that cost less than $15 except one guy who gifted an iPod or an expensive sweater, you know that overly expensive gifts can make others feel uncomfortable and will create the sense that you're trying to show off or curry favor.

9. Companies that give gifts to employees should be thoughtful about them. Giving wine to Muslims, turkeys to vegetarians, or cookies to diabetics is a good way to undo the whole point of gift-giving and leave recipients feeling that they've been treated impersonally. Besides, most employees would rather get a bonus or an extra day off than whatever gift the company picks out anyway.

10. Never feel pressured into spending money you can't afford. No matter how gung-ho your office is about holiday gifting, stand firm if participating would strain your budget. It's fine to say, "I'm sorry, I can't participate this year."

Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog, where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the co-author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results, and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development.